“Who?” has been my reaction to many Oakland A’s signings for a few years now. The A’s signing a player that excites the fan base has unfortunately become something of a seemingly distant past. No-name or really boring acquisitions have come to be what A's fans expect in the off-season.
But when Shintaro Fujinami, Japanese right-handed pitcher and four-time Nippon Professional Baseball All-Star, signed a one-year $3.25 million contract with Oakland on January 13th, I was excited.
Former Hanshin Tigers star “Fuji,” as he asked the media to call him in his introductory press conference, is not a once-in-a-lifetime player like his once rival and 5x NPB All-Star, 2016 Japan Series Champion, and Pacific League MVP Shohei Ohtani was in 2017 when he signed with the Los Angeles Angels. He’s also not 5x NPB All-Star, 2x Pacific League MVP, and 3x Pacific League strikeout title holder Yu Darvish when he was signed by the Rangers in 2012.
But Fuji’s resume is impressive in its own right. He's an intimidating 6-foot-6, 200-pound right-hander whose 4-seam fastball clocks in at 101 mph. He has in his toolbox a nasty slider and a ferocious splitter that can sometimes come in at an impressive 91 mph. Since making his professional debut in 2013, he has been one of the best pitchers in Japanese baseball and that's something A's fans should be excited about.
Shintaro Fujinami is causing excitement among Oakland A's fans
The A’s knew it too when they called members of the press in for an in-person press conference to introduce Fuji. According to Martin Gallegos of the A’s Beat, A’s General Manager David Forst made note of the buzz in the organization on the day of the signing.
"It’s been a while since we had a press conference and a day this exciting here."- A's GM David Forst
But what's the catch? It's no secret that the A's don't usually draw the best prospects out there, especially with one of the tightest wallets in the MLB.
The catch is Fuji's career has been full of ups and downs. The truth is he's a gamble. But when Fuji was a No. 1 NPB draft pick in 2012, he looked like a generational talent for Japan. And he didn't disappoint early in his career.
Fuji was an All-Star four years in a row and the sky was the limit for him. He was a sensational pitcher in his rookie year with a 10-6 record and a 2.75 ERA. He recorded 126 strikeouts in his 137.2 innings pitched. According to the Japan Times, he received more All-Star fan votes than any other Central League player at 19 years old.
And he only got better. In 2014, Fuji struck out 182 batters in 163 innings, earning him a spot on the All-Star team a second time. In 2015, at 21 years old, he led the NBP with 221 strikeouts in 199 innings. But his career took an unexpected turn in 2017.
Since 2017, Fuji has been an inconsistent pitcher. At times showcasing his past greatness, at other times displaying a worrying lack of control and showering his opponents with walks. He walked a troubling 6.3 batters per 9 innings pitched in 2021.
But does this mean the A’s signed a washed-up Japanese ex-star? Far from it.
Fuji showed remarkable improvement in 2022. He had a career low 1.118 WHIP after a career high of 1.654 in 2021 and struck out 115 batters in 107.1 innings pitched. This remarkable improvement is not the sign of a once-great player dragging out his dying career; this is the sign of a player who can still live up to the potential we already know he has. If Fuji can continue to improve his control, he could be a phenomenal starting pitcher for the A’s this upcoming season, adding to Oakland’s drastically improving rotation.
Fuji will also be bringing back the rivalry he had with the Angel’s superstar and former Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters sensation Shohei Ohtani early in his career. When asked if he was excited about renewing the once-prolific rivalry, Fuji was quoted by the Associated Press as saying,
"No doubt about it. I’m very excited. We’re the same age. Obviously, he’s one of the best players in the world. For the Japanese fans, it’ll be very exciting for us to play against each other. I’m very excited."- "Fuji"
Fuji was courted by numerous MLB teams this off-season, including the Red Sox, and ultimately chose the A’s over the competition to Oakland’s delight.
Fuji’s potential as a key part of the rotation and his rivalry with the Angels’ Ohtani is something all Oakland fans have to look forward to this year. I’m looking forward to seeing what Fuji adds to the team in 2023 and if he can bring the excitement the A’s fan base so desperately needs.